The Samsung Note 9, iPhone XS Max, Huawei Mate 20 and LG G7 ThinQ make 2018 the year of handsets replacing computers.
There were no surprises in the unveiling of the new Phone XS Max last month, but that is only from the perspective of the previous few months. Two years ago, the specs of the device would have sent shockwaves through the industry.
The most startling feature of Apple’s flagship smartphone, as viewed from 2016, would have been its size. Back then, the iPhone 7 Plus had settled into the new “large” 5.5-inch format that first arrived with the iPhone 6 Plus in 2014.
That phone symbolised Apple caving into the market forces that had seen the Samsung Note series lead the way to larger phone screens.
The XS Max symbolises a different response to market forces: Apple no longer wants to be the follower, and its 6.5-inch display now claims bragging rights for the largest screen on a mainstream flagship phone. It is astonishing how much bigger this display is than that of the first Samsung Note, back in 2011, when its 5.3-inch screen introduced a new term: the “phablet”, a combination of phone and tablet.
The format was roundly mocked by iPhone users, who have since had to grow up as much as their phones grew bigger. The main competitor to the XS Max, the Samsung Galaxy Note9, has only a marginally smaller screen, at 6.4-inches, so is essentially the same size. It has an added advantage, namely a stylus, which in previous editions was designed for writing, drawing and tapping on the screen.
On the Note9, it introduces new functionality, acting as a remote control device for the phone. The significance of this feature is that Note9 was positioned from the start as a tool for productivity, with the stylus allowing it to be used for input in documents and spreadsheets, among other.
Remote control functionality, sold as a great tool for selfies and underwater photography, also makes it an excellent presentation tool. Slowly we are seeing a joining of the dots that link the smartphone, the tablet, and the computer.
For the first time, displays are big enough for effective viewing of documents and spreadsheets. On sub-6-inch screens, touchscreen keyboards tend to get in the way, and it is difficult to use the functionality that is theoretically available on productivity apps.
This does not mean laptops are about to vanish. Most laptop screens are double the size of the biggest smartphone displays, typically starting at 13-inches. However, just a few years ago the idea that a smartphone screen could be half as big as that of a laptop would have been unthinkable.
Now, all major manufacturers are pursuing this size bracket. The new Huawei Mate 20 Lite, due to be launched in South Africa this week, is a 6.3-inch handset that will probably sell for half the price of the iPhone XS Max. Its big brother, the Mate 20, will be launched in London later this month, in direct competition with the Apple and Samsung flagships.
LG, which made a spectacular return to smartphone technology leadership last year with the V20+, has also entered the fray, although with a more modest 6.1-inch device, the G7 ThinQ. A standout feature of this handset is its narrow form factor. It is quite astonishing that so much screen space can be forced out of a phone that can be controlled with one hand – the one-time “advantage” that Apple claimed its 4-inch handsets had over the Samsung 5.3” giants.
The phone once again claims technology leadership for LG, in both audio technology and artificial intelligence (AI). AI Cam automatically identifies the scene or subject, and sets one of more than a dozen colour and contrast filters, ranging from people and pets to food and flowers. It is claimed to identify more than a thousand different objects, and produces a word cloud in the field of view to allow tagging of photos. However, the human eye still does a somewhat better job in this regard.
The phone is the most advanced on the market in terms of voice command functionality, using what LG calls Super Far Field microphones to pick up voice commands from a greater distance than most other phones. AI is roped in again, enabling advanced “beam forming”, which focuses sound input and filters out noise. This brings the LG into the same frame as smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home.
The other big new phones also have their own voice assistants, although not quite as advanced. These phones also all share one other significant feature: large batteries. Displays are the biggest drain on their power, so it is expected that the batteries also have to take up more space on the inside of the device.
From 3000 mAh on the ThinQ and 3174 mAh on the XS Max to 3750 mAh on the Mate 20 Lite and 4000 mAh on the Note9, the batteries are intended merely to keep pace with screen size.
However, careful power management will turn them into tools for productivity throughout a working day.